This was by far the most shocking thing I learned after I became a Christian and it is the prime reason why Christianity has over 1000 denominations. As I would read my Bible and learn things I would become excited, like a kid in a candy store, but as I shared my new-found excitement with my fellow Christians I was soon introduced to the one word that would kill that excitement, “Interpretation”.
There are no rules to interpretation just a local consensus. You can, in fact, interpret any line of scripture to mean anything you want it to mean within the understanding of your local group or congregation. There are several patterns I’ve found over the years as to why it can’t be what it says in the Bible and why it must be what the interpreter states that it is. I have listed them below so you will recognize them.
First, “Interpretation Via Language“, the way this one works is simple, what you read in the Bible is not what it means because you don’t know the original Greek or Hebrew meaning of the words, so you can’t possibly understand what you are reading. The part I find most fascinating about this type of interpretation is that I have never actually met anyone who speaks Greek or Hebrew, but they do claim to know certain words. If you press them on how they know these words then you will find a shocking and nonsensical fact, they read the words in a 3rd party study book. A book outside of the Bible used to change the meaning of what you just read in the Bible. O.o
Where this gets complicated: This changes from church to church depending on what 3rd party books people are reading (there are many). So, you can be confused multiple times and come out with multiple meanings to a single verse.
Next is, “Interpretation Via Training“, the way this one works is also simple, what you read in the Bible is not what it means because you haven’t had enough Bible training with Bible scholars. You haven’t read the entire Bible enough times to have a full grasp of what something means. You also don’t have enough understanding of history, so how could you possibly know what things in the Bible mean without a historical reference.
Where this gets complicated: This also changes from church to church depending on what history is known and accepted by the congregation. So, you can be confused multiple times and come out with multiple meanings to a single verse. I tested this several times with the issue of slavery in the Bible and got some fascinating responses from different congregations. Some believe slavery was supported by God due to historical references. Others believed it was not supported by God due to (again) historical references. There are some who think it never happened and that it was just a story to teach us a lesson because of the absence of historical references.
There is also, “Interpretation Via Common Sense“, the way this one works is frustrating and lazy, what you read in the Bible is not what it means because you are not using common sense. This one I run into mostly with fellow Christians during Bible conversations. You find yourself talking scripture and you read some out loud, as written, only to hear in response that it can’t literally mean that. When you press the person as to why they just respond with statements like, “That would be silly,” or “I don’t feel it would mean that”.
Where this gets complicated: This changes radically from person to person. Using feelings to know what something means in the Bible leads to a plethora of meanings to a single verse. People feel that verses have a certain meaning despite what is literally written in the Bible. They feel it in their bones.
Last is, “Interpretation Via Divine Inspiration“, the way this one works is complicated, what you read in the Bible is not what it means because person “X” talked directly to God and got a new meaning. I have seen this one many times in many churches. The preacher or priest claims to have received a message from God and that message has provided a new understanding of scripture.
Where this gets complicated: This changes from church to church depending on what the divine message was. So, you can be confused multiple times and come out with multiple meanings to a single verse. Sometimes it reverses what is written in the Bible, other times it adds a new modern clause to what is written, and sometimes it adds something completely new that you can’t find anywhere in the Bible.
My response to this challenge: I have decided to trust the manuscripts. I don’t think God made any mistakes, nor do I believe he lost the ability to protect the scriptures. So, I read the Bible as a literal text without changing the meaning of any of the words through interpretation. I also don’t add or remove words via interpretation. I leave the Bible as is.